Home MTA Technology Restoring the surprise in the age of countdown clocks

Restoring the surprise in the age of countdown clocks

by Benjamin Kabak

For when you don't want to know how or when your long wait ends.

From the folks who brought you Star Wars in a subway car, come the latest and greatest in guerilla labeling. Jason Eppink, a self-proclaimed mischief maker who says he “engages the public with victimless pranks, urban interventions, and interactive sculpture,” has decided that New York City Transit’s countdown clocks are just too practical. So to restore an element of surprise to the tedious task of waiting for the subway, Eppink has installed Spoiler Alert signs to the system’s signs.

He offers up an explanation on his website:

In 2007, the New York City Transit Authority began installing LED signs on subway platforms that display estimated wait times for arriving trains. Unfortunately the information is little more than trivia: except for a few stations, it is only visible to travelers after they’ve paid their fare, so the data has little bearing on commuter decision-making.

Their primary effect, then, is to erode faith in the system, to create expectations that can’t always be met, to raise false hopes, and to erase the mystery and magic of the wondrous system that transports more than five million riders a day.

These LED signs also threaten historical social behaviors, rendering obsolete the time-honored New York tradition of leaning over the platform edge with the hope of glimpsing headlights from an approaching train.

The Spoiler Alert signs warn waiting riders of this potentially unwanted information – allowing them to avert their eyes so they may preserve their spirit of adventure – while still leaving visible the data for travelers who wish to ruin the surprise for themselves.

I, for one, love the countdown clocks. I find myself consciously taking rides on the IRT lines just so I can enjoy the stress-free experience of waiting with a clock, and even though the clocks aren’t bug-free, they’re right more often than they’re not. I don’t miss that “time-honored New York tradition of leaning over the platform edge” one iota even if, as Eppink notes, it is a distinctly New York thing to do.

I’m sure some New Yorkers — and the MTA — won’t appreciate these signs and will find them too subtly sarcastic or cutesy for the serious business of riding the subway. But as the countdown clocks have made riding less stressful, this public art/prank can add a moment of levity to a dour subway commute.

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Kid Twist August 25, 2010 - 3:33 pm

Altering public property without permission is vandalism. Also, this is very funny.

Larry M August 26, 2010 - 1:21 am


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